The Great Wide Open

Where we last left off, my dear friends and neighbors, I was headed to the public hammam for a good scrubdown before my long journey through the Western Sahara and Mauritania to Senegal. Hammams are traditional Turkish baths, but as Turkey is quickly westernizing and most homes even in East Turkey now have hot water, the only hammams that exist are overpriced spas for tourists. In Turkey I shelled out a hefty 30 USD for the experience. In Morocco, a local hammam is 1 USD and a wonderful peek into local life. It is the only time you get to see local women chatting and socializing in this conservative Muslim society- the cafe culture is reserved strictly for men (the times I have attempted to sit down at a cafe in strict Muslim areas I am either ushered to sit in the back corner or kicked out). On the streets, the women in Southern Morocco are covered head to toe in burqua-style sheaths of colorful tie-dyes. In the hammam, it’s a sudden burst of breasts, bellies, bodies and loose flesh as women sit for hours scrubbing themselves and catching up with each other, uninhibited. It is a bit intimidating being the only foreigner- I didn’t have to shed any inhibitions but I wasn’t sure what was culturally appropriate and inappropriate, as it is often a fine line in this culture. But some awesome things happened to me in the course of the day:

1. A kind local Berber woman offered to help me out and teach me the proper bathing methods in the hammam, and then scrubbed my back for me just like Mom used to do when I was two in the tub.

2.  A family in Goulimime offered to feed me and let me rest at their home until my midnight bus so that I wouldn’t be wandering the derelict streets all by my lonesome.

3. I found a ride to the Mauritanian border, and through Mauritania all the way into Senegal with a group of grizzly old men from the French Alps who had all chipped in money to drive a bus down West Africa.

And so at the stroke of midnight, my long four day journey into Mauritania through the disputed Western Sahara region began. The first part was a long, boring 1300 kilometer drive through the desert of no mans land. We passed by Boujdour and saw some shipwrecks, and I was reminded of one of my favorite stories in history that took place here. That made me smile a bit in my hazy daze. I had been hitchiking for nearly a week and had not slept in four days, easily. So I began to hallucinate and staring out at the vast, barren spaces and endless desert hammada, saw the sand swirling into the shapes of imaginary animals. I had an inexplicable desire to watch Titanic all of a sudden. And then I thought of my neighbor’s dog, Callie. When I took a swig of my orange juice carton, I randomly got déja vu. All kind of an otherwordly experience, but tranquil all the same.

I passed two days sitting on the Tropic of Cancer in the trans-Saharan Tuareg trading ville of Dakhla, wishing I could take pictures of the nomads in military convoys and their herd of camels sometimes carried in the backs of their trucks, but I didn’t want to get shot and being a solo female in these conservative parts certainly wasn’t something people were used to seeing, and I didn’t want to draw any attention, so no pictures, sorry. On Saturday, I re-met up with the French Alps guys (who reminded me of Anthony Hopkins crossed with Robert DeNiro if he were to play Vincent Van Gogh in say, a Martin Scorcese flick…imagine that!) with the bus for the long, monotonous drive to the Mauritanian border.

Along the way I was entertained by nomad camps, destroyed car parts by the side of the road, and mysterious stone formations built by passers-by over the years. A wonderfully apocolyptic landscape. I entertained myself by naming the 50 US states and their capitals. I remember being anxious about this journey all the way back in Southeast Asia, unsure if I had what it took to travel this alone. But now I felt adventurous and excited, and almost tempted to extend my trip even longer. At the border, I met some guys with a car that planned to drive all the way down through Niger, Congo, Angola, and Namibia into South Africa, with extra room in their car, and thought of cancelling my flight home to go with them. Nah, for now, got to see my family and friends.

car wrecks on the side of the road through the Mauritanian wastelandCar wrecks and signs for landmines everywhere on the trans Saharan overland route through this wastelandabove: pictures from the trans Saharan wasteland- landmine warning signs and car wrecks galore.

I had been warned by so many people that I would not be able to get into Mauritania with an American passport. The contacts I had made in Senegal had told me they had tried to help an American friend get in and even with help from the police on both sides of the border, were unable to do so. I was amazed when my passport came back  after five hours at the border with a Mauritanian transit visa stamp without even a bribe. Still, every time we were stopped by the police driving through Mauritania (we passed maybe 30 checkpoints) I shook like a nervous wreck. The driver kept telling the police everyone inside was French and I just kept silent in the back. And then I thought of those Holocaust movies scenes when Jews are being smuggled out of Germany and have to lie about being Jewish. Once an officer came on board and shone a flashlight in my face demanding where I came from. “Chine” I said in French. He seemed satisfied and let us through. I don’t think there would have been a huge problem if I said America, but we were exhausted and I did not feel like being hassled this late at night.


Hanging out with a Mauritanian in Mauritania. I found Mauritania to be quite laid back and chill despite it being a super conservative Muslim state, and despite the fact that I could not walk around by myself.

It took three days to get through Mauritania and on the last day, we drove four hours through roads rougher than anything I had ever experienced in Bolivian backcountry, keeping a lookout for the ubiquitous landmine warning signs, to a remote border crossing in order to avoid the notorious border hassles at the more popular Rosso border crossing. I was happy to be in good hands; the driver had done this route maybe 30 times and knew how to talk to the guards and avoid major hassles and bribes. But I was tired, and the French men I was hitchiking with started to annoy me. In general, most of them were helpful and good people, but I started to see that a few of them enjoyed coming to Senegal only to play the role of the White Man.

They still hassled us at the Diamma border, demanding bribes and “luggage fees”. Then one of the officers saw my American passport and started making a big deal and giving me shit and harassing me. I was exhausted and unused to the sudden climate change and swarms of mosquitos, so I got pissed off. I was more annoyed than anything. So I have an American passport. So what? I talked back to him in French…we are all just people, dammit! No nations no borders, dammit! No, I did not literally say that. But I said something calmly to the effect of judging me by the Bush administration was ignorant…or something. I don’t really remember. I just rattled on like a freak and then eventually we all got through. Phew!


At the Mauritania-Senegal border posing with a coke can

So I am now in Saint-Louis, Senegal, I made it! The streets are alive with drumbeats and colors and laughter and food and all kinds of energy and I am really loving it. I also enjoyed my first beer in a long time last night, and my face turned red really quickly.


Saint-Louis' historical district




~ by ceciliabien on October 29, 2009.

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